Children are facing a deterioration in school meals due to shortages and rising prices in the cost of living crisis, a study shows.
School meal providers have said they are being forced to cut the quality of meals and are using more processed food and poorer quality meat for student lunches due to cost pressures.
The school food industry has now warned it is “on its knees” due to a mismatch between funding and rising food costs – and said the situation was only likely to get worse in the coming months.
Talking to The independentone head of school said colleagues were even considering the idea of serving only cold food to cut costs.
In a new poll by Laca, the trade body representing school catering, 91 per cent of the 99 school meal providers surveyed across England and Wales said they are experiencing food shortages, with more than 60 per cent saying this has not improved since May.
The survey, whose respondents provide food to nearly 10,000 schools, found that prices have risen by 30 percent since May.
This is in addition to the 20 percent price increases reported by Laca’s members in May compared to April 2020.
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About 28 percent of respondents said they were now using more processed foods to cope with rising costs.
Of the caterers who have experienced increases in the price of meat, 13 per cent had already switched from British meat to products from overseas, while 35 per cent were considering doing so.
More than half of the surveyed school caterers believed that the quality of school food would deteriorate over the coming months.
“School meal providers need to do more with less,” said Kevin Courtney of the National Education Union. “This puts the health of our school children at risk.”
The chairman of Laca said some vulnerable children could soon be forced to go without their only hot meal of the day.
“Despite the best efforts of our members and dedicated frontline staff, the school meals industry is on its knees,” said Brad Pearce.
“The challenges facing our industry will worsen over the coming weeks and months.
“Without an increase in funding for school meals, the most vulnerable children in our society will go without, possibly, their only hot, healthy and nutritious meal of the day.”
School caterers must meet mandatory food standards set by the government, but Laca said this comes at a “big price” as prices escalate. Its members said they had to provide fewer choices and eat cheaper meals more often in an effort to stay compliant.
Mumim Humayun, a primary school principal, told The independent the situation was “very challenging at the moment”.
Some colleagues were now mulling the idea of serving only cold food to cut the cost of using ovens, Mr Humayun added.
Headmaster Pepe Di’Iasio said so The independent his school had served less varied meals and that it was trying to reduce frying in the kitchen to save money as costs had risen by more than 11 per cent since the start of the term.
He said his school absorbed the price increase to avoid passing it on to parents, but added: “This is not sustainable much longer.”
Mr. Courtney said the government had reduced the amount of money spent on school meals by 25 per cent in real terms over the past 12 years. The union chief said it was necessary to increase this funding in line with inflation “rather than cutting standards to the detriment of children’s health”.
State funds free school meals for the most disadvantaged students. But Geoff Barton, of the Association of School and College Leaders, said this was currently “insufficient to cover the cost of inflation”.
“This will inevitably jeopardize the quality of the meals that can be given to the students,” he said. “This is a completely unacceptable situation when it is so obvious that children need the guarantee of a good, nutritious meal every day.”
He argued that the government should pay for free school meals for all primary school children. Laca said it wanted free school meals for all families on Universal Credit which some are currently closed out.
This is the case of Tayyaba Siddiqui from London, a part-time NHS worker on universal credit, who recently found out that her son no longer qualifies for free meals as her income is deemed too high.
The single mother told The independent she still needs the support. “We don’t live, we survive,” she said. Her son has been choosing cheaper food options at school, including sandwiches that contain a single slice of cheese.
Stephanie Slater, from the charity School Food Matters, said there would be a “twin benefit” in allowing more families to access free school meals. More families would receive help and school catering would benefit from economies of scale.
She said the number of meals was “down” at the moment, in part because low-income families can’t afford them.
The School Food Review Working Group – a coalition of 36 groups including charities, caterers and academics – said the rising cost of food meant it was vital more people were eligible for free school meals.
Dr. Nick Capstick, chairman of the group, said: “The real pressure at the moment is on low-income families who are struggling to buy food.
“We know there are 800,000 children living in poverty who still do not qualify for a free school meal. Raising the threshold would provide immediate support for these children with the bonus of providing educational and wellbeing benefits, while provides economies of scale to help school catering.”
“The rising prices of food are putting pressure on caterers, but the good news is that this survey shows that the vast majority of them (94 per cent) meet the mandatory school food standards, ensuring that children have access to balanced school meals.”
A government spokesman said: “We have expanded access to free school meals more than any other government in recent decades, currently reaching 1.9 million children.”
They said schools were also supported with £53.8bn. in core funding this year and a £4bn. increase in total funding from the previous academic year.